Bihar election results challenge Modi's BJP

Nitish Kumar (L), a leader of Janata Dal (United) and Chief Minister of eastern state of Bihar, hugs Lalu Prasad Yadav, chief of Rashtriya Janata Dal, before addressing a news conference in Patna Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Kumar and Mr Yadav face the tough job of staying together and working together for Bihar

India's most-talked about election this year has now delivered what many say is a historic verdict.

An uneasy coalition of two regional leaders - socialist friends-turned-adversaries-turned-allies - has handed a resounding defeat to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Bihar, one of India's poorest and most backward states.

Bihar's voters can be fiendishly difficult to fathom - economic aspirations are often leavened with primordial loyalties of caste and religion.

Bihar is Mr Modi's second consecutive setback this year after he swept to power with an overwhelming majority in 2014.

In February, an upstart anti-corruption party scorned by the prime minister routed his party in Delhi. Now an untidy "grand alliance" comprising an alphabet soup of local parties - JDU(U) and RJD led by Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav respectively - have felled the BJP and its charismatic leader in Bihar.

The long and bitter battle for Bihar

Beef, Bihar and the Indian PM

Mr Modi was the indisputable face of his party's campaign in Bihar. He led the campaign, addressing 26 public meetings across the length and breadth of the state.

What's more, his trusted aide Amit Shah, who is also the BJP president and chief poll strategiser, camped in the state and spoke himself at more than 70 meetings.

Mr Modi came to Bihar promising jobs and development in a reprise of the campaign which helped him to sweep to power in federal elections last year.

In fact, his party and its allies won 31 of the 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar in 2014.

But the prime minister's lustre has somewhat diminished since. In what was a protracted five-phase election, his party's campaign ramped up the rhetoric, asking voters, among other things, if they wanted "a [Bihar] government… that protects terrorists".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Modi himself led the campaign in Bihar

Lessons to learn

Amid growing countrywide concern over rising intolerance and Hindu hardliners running amok, Mr Modi and Mr Shah raised the sensitive issue of cow slaughter and consumption of beef - the cow is regarded as sacred but polarises opinion in Hindu-majority India.

They invoked Pakistan and accused his rivals of stealing affirmative action quotas for minorities. Things became so bad that the election authorities stepped in and proscribed two provocative BJP campaign adverts.

Mr Shah told a rally that if "by any chance" his party lost Bihar, "then firecrackers would be let off in celebration in Pakistan". Mr Kumar met the BJP's high-pitched campaign with a measured response, addressing concerns over equitable growth and development. Meanwhile his ally, Mr Yadav mined the caste vote successfully, making sure that not many voters strayed to the BJP.

Mr Modi and his party, say analysts, have a lot of lessons to learn from the Bihar verdict.

First, running a campaign that uses development, caste and religion does not always work. Voters should be more respected for their wisdom.

Secondly, voters appear to be increasingly sceptical of Mr Modi's promises of growth and development. Many believe the Bihar verdict shows he hasn't convinced many people that he has the ability to deliver on his key promise.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Voting in the Bihar elections took place in five stages - these women were voting in Samastipur on 12 October

Enthusiasm wanes

Even some of his most ardent supporters say Mr Modi has run a lacklustre and underwhelming government in the past 18 months. The tyranny of expectations is beginning to bite. The needless provocations of some of his noisy lawmakers and ministers and the radical fringe are giving his government a bad name at home and abroad.

Thirdly, Mr Modi is seen as a less invincible and strong leader. The rout in Delhi shattered the aura of invincibility. The Bihar debacle proves that the enthusiasm has waned further. Many are wondering how a prime minister with one of the largest poll victories in India's history is unable to rein in hardliners in his own flock.

Finally, the BJP should now be ready to face a reinvigorated opposition - in tatters after last year's debacle.

Although it still remains India's strongest party, Mr Modi's binary politics - either you are with us, or against us - has effectively helped unite a rag-tag opposition, which now believes that it can take on the BJP by forging similar coalitions as in Bihar. Even the Congress, lacking fresh ideas and led by a reluctant leader, appears to have staged a modest recovery.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Voters in Bihar turned away from Mr Modi's BJP in favour of two regional parties

The fact that the BJP could not take on a motley coalition in which one of the leaders, Mr Yadav, was convicted in a corruption case and has been effectively barred from holding office until 2024, points to the BJP's lack of political imagination and accommodation.

"The results are a reality check for Mr Modi and the BJP. The majoritarian climate was becoming suffocating," says Yogendra Yadav, social scientist and a former leader of the opposition Aam Aadmi Party. Congress party MP Shashi Tharoor believes that the Bihar verdict is a victory for development [under Mr Kumar's government], communal amity and democracy.

'Wake-up call'

Eighteen months in power, and Mr Modi and the BJP are already at the crossroads.

The prime minister needs to regain the initiative, rein in the recalcitrant hotheads in his party and engage with his opponents in a more befitting manner.

"The results are a big blow to Mr Modi's momentum. His future now depends on how he responds. If he uses this verdict as a wake-up call and cleans out the ugly side, he could turn it around. There will be also infighting in the party now," political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta tells me.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Supporters of Bihar's RJD party celebrated at their party leader's residence in the federal capital, Delhi

Mr Kumar and Mr Yadav face the tough job of staying together and working together for Bihar - coalitions in India can be notoriously fickle, and governments run by them are infamous for corruption and cronyism. It is still not clear how this coalition will work for Bihar.

For Mr Modi, as he gets ready to embark on a much-hyped trip to the UK next week and for another fawning reception by the diaspora, it is possibly time to reflect. "It may be easier for him to win an election in Wembley or Leicester than in Bihar," quips analyst Vir Sanghvi. That cannot be very good news for a man who offered India so much hope.

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